After a long time out of the pool, Volvo has just taken a headlong dive into one of the most demanding segments in the world of motorcars with its all-new S90, and we expect that it will find the waters cold but bracing. The midsize luxury sedan category is a segment populated with some of our favorite four-doors, including the BMW 5 Series, Mercedes-Benz E-Class and the Audi A6, so no one predicts that finding a place in this panoply of greatness will be a walk through the birch trees for the Swedish automaker that, these days, is backed by Chinese car manufacturer Geely. But after our extensive drive in the new S90 in the south of Spain, we can report that the car it is bringing to market gives Volvo as good a chance as any to make a dent in the dominance of these vaunted German marques.

Since Volvo continues to enjoy an unparalleled reputation for vehicle safety you might expect that the new S90 to be the harbinger of a fully autonomous driving future that is right around the corner. The new S90 is chockfull of sophisticated driver-assist systems like City Safety that now includes, amusingly, Large Animal Detection, but if autonomous operation is right around the bend, we are going to reach that corner after a long, long straight that will take us deeply into the next decade. As Dr. Peter Mertens, Senior Vice President Research & Development at Volvo Car Group, told us, fully autonomous systems that can do the job of driving a car in all situations are well beyond what the S90 offers and what Volvo is likely to offer for the foreseeable future. Those who suggest fully autonomous (so-called level 4) cars are imminent, he added, are full of a certain farmyard excrement.

“Before Volvo will make autonomous cars available,” he told us, “We will make certain that the car can drive itself better than a good [human] driver can.”

World’s most complete semi-autonomous car

Okay, we’ve told you what the S90 isn’t -– fully autonomous -– but what it is -- very likely the most complete semi-autonomous car now available -- is quite impressive. For instance the new S90 offers “Run-off Road Mitigation” that is designed to prevent one of the most common types of fatal accidents. Between speeds of 40-85 mph the system can sense a potential run-off-the-road situation, and in response it can both steer and brake automatically to keep the S90 on the road surface.  If this seems potentially intrusive, recognize that it can always be overridden by overt driver action. It is designed to function in times of driver inattention and/or impairment that could send the car careening off the road with predictably bad results to both driver and nearby trees.

Gen2 Pilot Assist

In a similar vein, the new S90 offers Pilot Assist, a system Volvo admits is a stepping-stone technology on the way to fully autonomous cars. Now in its second generation, the technology keeps the car in its lane as long as it is engaged and the driver has her or his hands on the wheel, and it functions not only in low-speed bumper-to-bumper traffic situations but also in general over-the-road highway driving as long as there are clear lane markings on the roadway or a significant difference in contrast between the pavement and the shoulder.

The driver can override the system at any time by using the brake pedal, accelerator pedal or steering wheel, and use of the turn-signal can temporarily abort the steering support if the driver wants to change lanes. The associated Adaptive Cruise Control enables you to set the “time gap” (essentially the following distance) and the speed. In full-on mode, acceleration, braking and steering are all assisted to help you comfortably follow the traffic flow in your current lane.

In our stint on Spanish Autovias (freeways) the system worked well at maintaining the desired speed while keeping our S90 within the lane, although we suspect you would do a better job of staying centered. In curves the system lets you approach the lane markers before correcting, a bit of a pinball machine effect. Still, in stop-and-go driving, letting the car do some of the thinking makes life better.

Making your life simpler

If you get the impression that Volvo engineers are trying to make driving easier for you as well as safer, that is intentional. Volvo designer Tisha Johnson told us one of the goals for the S90 was to create “a Scandinavian sanctuary” where alone time can be as valuable and as pleasant as possible. To this end the S90 offers a state-of-the-art infotainment system that features an advanced Apple CarPlay integration and the availability of a 19-speaker Bowers & Wilkins audio system that sounds like the Gothenburg concert hall. The simple yet functional design of the Sensus control interface adds to the driver’s ease, and the new-gen seats prove yet again that Volvo is a world leader in vehicle seat comfort and function.  After hours at the wheels of various S90s over the course of a day we emerged fresh and ready for more driving.

A sedan for drivers

While to this point we’ve spent a great deal of time and space in describing ways the S90 will drive for you, our key finding was if you turn off most of the electronic driving aids, you will find the S90 is a terrific car to, dare we say it, drive yourself. While our guess is it won’t quite stay with the rear-drive, German competitors in full-on performance driving, we found the all-wheel-drive T6 version of the S90 to be quite a satisfying sports sedan with laudable levels of road-holding, acceleration and steering.

When you learn that the S90 is powered by a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, you might anticipate a mediocre level of performance. But through the magic of direct-injection, supercharging and turbocharging the T6 delivers 316 horsepower and a stunningly flat torque curve that means nearly instantaneous response to the manipulation of the right pedal. During our lengthy day with the S90 T6, there were only a couple moments when the torque delivery was anything less than satin-smooth and linear. At the same time we expect the T6 and the T5 (with its 250-horsepower turbocharged 2.0-liter engine) to deliver excellent fuel economy, but we’ll have to wait for official figures. For those who want to take fuel consumption to the next plateau, a plug-in hybrid “Twin-Engine” T8 version of the S90 will come later.

New from the tires to the top

Because the S90 was designed from the ground up to, among other things, accommodate a hybrid powertrain, designers and engineers were able to build in an attractive axle-to-cowl ratio with wheels at the four corners and the accompanying short overhangs. At the same time a front double wishbone and rear transverse leaf spring suspension provide both sharp handling and room for a variety of mechanicals. The T6 versions replace the leaf spring with an air suspension, enabling tuning on the go.

If up to now we haven’t mentioned that the S90 is a very handsome car, in person there is no doubt of it. Certainly it is competing against some very attractive vehicles, but the body -– some of it shaped of hot-formed boron steel –- is striking and takes a lesser parking spot to none of them. Special features include the front grille that is scalloped in homage to the Volvo P1800 sports car, the “Thor’s hammer” motif in the LED headlights and the sailboat-inspired sweeping line that extends from bow to stern.

Influence beyond its size

What Volvo is trying to do, as one of the globe’s smallest car companies, is change the world. The goal of Volvo’s Vision 2020 initiative is to ensure that no one be killed or injured in a new Volvo in the year 2020 and beyond. That is a task that no other car company has cut out for itself, and Volvo’s quest is accompanied by similar efforts to limit vehicle emissions and traffic congestion. These are big picture items for what is a relatively small company, but with the S90 Volvo seems well on its way to realizing its goals. 

Have you seen all the new and redesigned cars heading our way for 2017?


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